AFC West: Jack Del Rio

INDIANAPOLIS -- Technically, Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio can't specifically talk about signing soon-to-be-free-agent Terrance Knighton, but Wednesday Del Rio made it clear he likes the Denver Broncos defensive tackle plenty.

Free agency doesn't open until March 10 -- a negotiating window opens the week before that -- so under the league's tampering rules coaches and general managers can't talk about acquiring players under contract with other teams. Contracts from the 2014 season do not expire until March 9, the last day of the current league year. But there is history at work given Del Rio was the Jacksonville Jaguars coach when the team selected Knighton in the third round of the 2009 draft and he was the Broncos defensive coordinator when Knighton signed in free agency in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDenver Broncos
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty Images"We drafted him," said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio of Terrance Knighton, "we thought at that time he was kind of a dancing bear type. A big powerful man that could stay on his feet and run down the line."
And with Knighton scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and Del Rio on the hunt for more players in his new job as Oakland Raiders coach, it's clear there will be interest in the Bay Area.

"We drafted him, we thought at that time he was kind of a dancing bear type," Del Rio said Wednesday at the NFL's scouting combine. "A big powerful man that could stay on his feet and run down the line. So, you know, this game is about big, powerful men so the guys that have the skill level can do their things. This big powerful man played well in Jacksonville, we got back together, he played well in Denver and so I appreciate that and I respect. We have to have those kinds of people in our trenches in the offensive and defensive line in order to play the kind of football we expect to play."

Del Rio even used some of his question-and-answer session with the media at the combine to put the word out the Raiders have money and are ready to spend as well.

"I think it's important that the prospective players out there understand that things have changed," Del Rio said. "Our practice fields are all being re-done, our weight room will be expanded, we have a steam room going in, there's a freshness going on. ... As you go in this phase of free agency and acquiring players, we have cap space, we have cash, and we have a new staff full of teachers and we have a good young quarterback, we have a good man off the edge Khalil Mack, we've got a good left tackle, we've got good corners, so the things we needed when we started we have."

Knighton, a team captain this past season for the Broncos, was a key voice in the locker room and a key part of the team's defense as well, especially on early downs. For his part Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Wednesday the team hopes to retain as many of its own free agents in the coming weeks, including Knighton.

Knighton would be a nose tackle in the Broncos' new 3-4 defense.

"We've got a few (free agents) obviously," Kubiak said. "The key in this business is holding your football team together and getting better at the same time. We've got some key free agents. … I know we're going to do everything we can to hang on to our players, but at the same time you have to put yourself in position through free agency and the offseason to get better as a football team. John's track record has proven he's doing a great job of that so I'll leave that to him. We would like to hang on to everybody. We want to keep the team intact as best we can."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It’s not all that surprising that pass rushers would cast their votes for any defensive gameplan that called for the aggressive approach when it was time to chase down opposing quarterbacks.

But there was a moment in the Denver Broncos’ stretch drive this past regular season when linebacker Von Miller and defensive end DeMarcus Ware were seated next to each other and were asked to name the game to that point in the season when the Broncos had done the best job rushing the passer. And both players, simultaneously and without hesitation, said; “49ers.’’

Stands to reason, at least from the perspective of sack artists, since the game video revealed the Broncos not only were tied for the season best in sacks in the Oct. 19 win over the 49ers – they had six, one of two six-sack games during the season – but they were also the most aggressive in going about it in that game.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller
Kevin Terrell/AP ImagesDeMarcus Ware (left) and Von Miller celebrate a sack, something they believe they can do a lot more of in 2015.
That game, a 42-17 Broncos’ victory at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, was also the season high for defensive snaps the Broncos sent five or more pass rushers at the opposing quarterback. A team that didn’t add extra rushers all that often to the mix sent at least one extra rusher at 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on 14 defensive snaps, including penalty snaps.

Eleven of those snaps included five pass rushers and on three snaps the Broncos sent at least six. The Broncos also had two games when they sent at least five pass rushers at opposing quarterbacks for 13 snaps – wins over the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins.

No team attempted more passes against the Broncos last season than the Bills did – 57 – and the 49ers’ 46 attempts amounted to the fifth-highest total for the season.

It all comes to light because if there was a consistent criticism of the Broncos’ defense in the public domain it was that Jack Del Rio, with the likes of Miller and Ware in the formation, wasn’t aggressive enough in the rush. Both Del Rio and coach John Fox routinely said, with logic on their side, the best strategy on defense in these pass-happy times was a defense that could consistently create pressure with four rushers – with those four players coming from anywhere in the formation – so the Broncos could have seven players in coverage.

And overall, the Broncos did lead the league in forcing three-and-outs this past season – 30.8 percent of offensive series – and the team set a franchise single-season record for fewest rushing yards allowed per game (79.8).

But in the biggest moments the league's big-name quarterbacks have gone about their business largely unencumbered, including the loss to the Indianapolis Colts last month. The Broncos have had one sack in their last three playoff losses combined in two home losses in the divisional round to finish out both 2012 and 2014 to go with the loss in Super Bowl XLVIII to close out the 2013 season.

In the Super Bowl loss Russell Wilson completed 69.2 percent of his passes while Andrew Luck completed 62.8 percent of his passes in the Colts’ win over the Broncos in January – neither was sacked by the Broncos. In the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season the Broncos sacked Joe Flacco once and while Flacco completed onlt 52.9 percent of his passes he threw for 331 yards on 18 completions.

So, while incoming defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has not promised a blitz-happy attack – he, too, likes to create as much pressure with four rushers as often as possible – he has promised an aggressive mindset.

“We’re aggressive,’’ Phillips said. “Defensive players, they’re aggressive by nature. I think you take something away from them when you don’t let them be. And aggressive doesn’t mean blitzing all the time, but it does mean coming off the football -- everybody coming off the football. You won’t see a square stance from a defensive lineman, so to speak for people who know football, where you’re reading. This is an attack defense, and that’s the way players like to play. You get the best results out of that and I think you play the best that way so we’ll be that way.’’

At the Pro Bowl, in the days leading up to the Super Bowl they had hoped to be playing in, both Miller and Ware offered a prelude to those sentiments. Both players, surrounded by Super Bowl reminders in the stadium where the title game would be played just a week later, offered the hope of aggressiveness.

“You always want to get to the quarterback,’’ Miller said. “This defense has the players to do it, we need just to get in the lab and figure out how to be better. Because we had moments where we showed what we can do, but we didn’t do it enough, myself included, I know that.’’

“We feel like there’s more we can do,’’ Ware said. “We want every play to be hard on the quarterback.’’

Del Rio confident second try with Musgrave will benefit Raiders

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Whatever problems that may have existed between Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave when they worked together in Jacksonville have long been forgotten. Now the two men are unified in an effort to turn things around in Oakland.

During a lunch with reporters on Thursday, Del Rio spoke glowingly of Musgrave and called him a good fit for the Raiders.

[+] EnlargeBill Musgrave
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsThe Raiders' Jack Del Rio said he's high on the experience Bill Musgrave has gained as a coach.
“Bill and I left on good terms,” Del Rio said. “He’s a good man. Since that time he’s been a coordinator, he’s been a quarterbacks coach, he’s been exposed to systems. He’s gone through quite a bit and he’s been a little bit battle-hardened. He understands the demands I’m going to place. He's a bright guy, super intelligent guy.”

Del Rio was a first-time NFL head coach in 2003 when he hired Musgrave to be the Jaguars' offensive coordinator. The union lasted just two seasons and ended with Del Rio firing Musgrave.

Since then both men have bounced around the league in a variety of capacities. They were reunited with the Raiders not long after Del Rio was hired away from Denver to replace interim coach Tony Sparano.

While some people questioned the move, Del Rio sounded like it was a no-brainer. The situation in Jacksonville, he said, was a result of both men’s lack of coaching experience at the time.

“I thought he was really bright back then,” Del Rio said. “Both of us were kind of green. We were both cutting our teeth. As we get back together now I think we’re both in a much better position, a lot wiser and a lot better prepared.”

Del Rio talked openly about his team, the roster and a variety of other topics during the lunch and 20-minute question and answer session with reporters.

One of the more intriguing topics was the possibility of the Raiders using the no-huddle as part of their offense in 2015. Musgrave, who was Philadelphia’s quarterbacks coach in 2014, had previously downplayed talk about the no-huddle, but quarterback Derek Carr told’s Bill Williamson earlier this week that it would definitely be a part of Oakland’s system.

Del Rio reiterated that stance on Thursday but didn’t say how much a part of the offense the no-huddle would be.

“We will have that ability to attack people in that manner,” Del Rio said. “Bill has a wealth of knowledge. We’re going to, as a staff, sit down and determine what the Raider way is going forward. But I do know that that is an element that he brings to the table.

“That’s something that we will want to be able to do when we decide we want to do it. We want to be able to go at different speeds. If we want to go fast, we’ll go fast. If we want to play at a no-huddle but methodical pace, we can do that. If we want to huddle and really milk it, we’ll know how to do that.”

Here are some of the other topics Del Rio discussed:

  • On where the Raiders need the most help: “I think the biggest thing is for us as a team to develop the mentality. We’ll clearly increase the talent level. But I think it’s important that we develop the players that are here. We want to create a competitive environment where guys enjoy coming to work. With that, the mentality that we’re looking for will be developed and built and this football team will change, will transform.”
  • On first-year defensive coordinator Ken Norton: “Great passion. Really connects with the players. He's coming in with a knowledge of what it looks like to win, what it takes to win, how you put together a roster, how you motivate a roster. He's going to be excellent. He likes to have fun. Players are going to love it.”
  • On if Latavius Murray, who supplanted Darren McFadden as Oakland’s starting running back for the final three games last season, will be the No. 1 back heading into 2015: “I think he’s shown enough of the traits to make him a candidate to be that guy. I don’t know that he’s earned that yet. He’s shown that there’s potential there. We’re excited about working with him and developing him to his fullest. He’s got size and speed. Then there’s some things that we’ll need to work to improve in terms of overall awareness, football IQ, things like that. Then some of the running lanes we want to provide for him. Quite frankly, there weren’t enough holes last year for backs to get loose in and do their thing.”
  • On Carr, who set numerous franchise records during his rookie year: “He’s clearly the kind of guy that wants to roll up his sleeves and get to work. Everything that I’ve learned about him has been really positive. We want to make sure not only that he’s strong and that he develops and does things, but that we’re strong around him. His ability to be accurate and decisive in the passing game will be something we think we can take advantage of.”
  • On whether soon to be 30-year-old running back Maurice Jones-Drew still has something left after he was used primarily as a backup during his first season with the Raiders: “He thinks he does. We’ve talked about it. That’s something we need to find out. He feels healthy. The first thing will be to make sure to keep his weight where it needs to be ... so that he can be explosive again.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Talk about a housewarming gift.

Wade Phillips, with his four decades of NFL experience, has arrived as the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator to find the cupboard, talent-wise, pretty full.

"I’m pretty good at what I’m doing; I’ve done it a lot of times," Phillips said this week. "This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into -- or way better than any other situation I’ve come into. Normally they’ve had a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense, but we’re going to do better. That’s what I do, is improve them."

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWade Phillips will take over a Denver defense that returns five Pro Bowlers from 2014.
The Broncos were third in total defense this past season -- surrendering 305.2 yards per game -- tied for 16th in scoring defense at 22.1 points per game, tied for ninth in sacks (41) and have five Pro Bowl defensive players who are all under contract for 2015. This is not an extreme makeover.

Or as cornerback Chris Harris Jr., one of those Pro Bowl participants, said before Phillips was hired: “Whoever comes in is getting a defense ready to go. We can do big things."

The Broncos will do those things with a different scheme on defense. Phillips said Tuesday what most thought when he was formally announced as Jack Del Rio's replacement, that the Broncos will move to a 3-4 look on defense.

Former Broncos coach John Fox, first with Dennis Allen at defensive coordinator and then Del Rio, used plenty of hybrid fronts and often lined up in a 3-4 look in situational work over the past four seasons, including using a traditional 3-4 look when they faced teams who worked comfortably out of two-tight end formations or had a read-option quarterback.

But while Phillips’ scheme will be a far more traditional 3-4 look, he believes, especially with the ability to line up Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware as the team’s outside linebackers, to go with three Pro Bowl players in the secondary -- Harris, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward -- the personnel on hand will make it a smooth transition.

"The outside ‘backers, you want them to be the rush guys," Phillips said. "I’ve been lucky to have a lot of really good ones. Simon Fletcher here had (16) sacks and I think he set the sack record here for a long time. So we can utilize the guys that have talents to rush. I’ve always said, ‘Hey, if he can rush well, if he’s a really great rusher, let him rush.’ It seems simple but sometimes people want to drop them in the pass and all that stuff. It’s also the cornerbacks, what they can do. It’s what Harris can do, what Talib can do. It’s whatever they can do really well, then we’re going to utilize that."

Miller, who has had at least 11.5 sacks in three of his four seasons with the Broncos, offers Phillips the kind of starting point he had in 2011 when Gary Kubiak hired Phillips to be the Texans defensive coordinator following a year when they finished 30th in total defense.

Ware played for Phillips in Dallas from 2007-10 and had 14, 20, 11 and 15.5 sacks in those four seasons. Also at linebacker, Brandon Marshall is expected to be a quick fit into one of the inside spots, as would Danny Trevathan if his recovery from an injury-marred 2014 -- three separate injuries to his left leg -- goes well.

“That’s what a defensive coordinator is in the NFL, you take the talent of the players you have and the really talented ones, you do what they do well and let them do it,’’ Phillips said. “It’s not the scheme itself, it’s the players … Utilize their talent, and that’s what we try to do and we’ve been pretty successful with that.”

In terms of the players on hand, the Broncos will have to answer the roster question at nose tackle. Terrance Knighton, who would be the most likely candidate there, is an unrestricted free agent who would be a coveted player for Del Rio in his new job as Oakland Raiders coach.

If Knighton isn’t re-signed -- and he is likely to get the biggest offer elsewhere -- then Sylvester Williams would get some work in the middle of the defensive line. The Broncos also have two players on the roster who project to be productive players at the two defensive end spots in a three-man front in Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson.

So, given all of that, Phillips was asked this week if there would be added pressure with the new gig.

"I don’t think there’s pressure not to mess it up, I think it’s to get them better," Phillips said.

"I’ve been lucky to get into the right situations with good players and I think we have them here."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A rather extreme makeover for a 12-win team continued Wednesday when Denver Broncos players and officials were informed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had accepted an offer to be the Oakland Raiders coach.

Del Rio
John Fox and the Broncos "parted ways" on Monday, and Del Rio informed team officials Wednesday afternoon he was moving on, as well, after three seasons. Del Rio, who signed a contract extension before this past season, is the second consecutive Broncos defensive coordinator to take the Raiders' job, following Dennis Allen, who left the Broncos following the 2011 season.

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase could also poised to leave his position. He has interviewed with four teams, including two sit-downs with the San Francisco 49ers -- who promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach. Gase then met with Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway briefly Wednesday morning. Elway said Tuesday both Gase and Del Rio were "candidates" for the Broncos' coaching vacancy but would not say whether he would interview both.

Broncos players have been solidly behind Del Rio. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said in the days leading up to Sunday's 23-14 divisional-round loss to the Indianapolis Colts: "he's a genius ... he knows what's coming so we know what's coming."

Knighton, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, figures to be on the Raiders' radar now. When Knighton arrived in Denver in 2013, Del Rio said his addition was one of the team's most important offseason moves that year.

Some of the Broncos took to Twitter to show their support, as well:

For the third time in the past three seasons, the Broncos will see one of their coordinators take a head coaching job elsewhere in their division. There was Allen in 2012, and former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was hired as the San Diego Chargers coach following in 2013.

Del Rio had his first interview with the Raiders on Jan. 4, and multiple sources confirmed Monday that the second interview with Raiders officials, including owner Mark Davis, took place Tuesday. Del Rio then accepted the job and the four-year contract that goes with it Wednesday.

By league rules, since the Broncos' season ended with the loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Del Rio and Gase could reconnect with the teams that interviewed them during the playoff bye week if those organizations were still interested.

On his initial interview with the Raiders, Del Rio said days before the Colts game that "I think it went well."

Del Rio, a native of a Hayward, California, has family members who have been Raiders season-ticket holders. It was a job he desired, and it didn't escape notice that Davis sought out Del Rio on the field during warm-ups before the Broncos and Raiders played in the regular-season finale Dec. 28.

The Broncos finished No. 3 in total defense this season and led the league in forcing three-and-outs. In 2012, Del Rio's first season in Denver, the Broncos were No. 2 in overall defense, No. 4 in scoring defense and tied for the league lead in sacks.

Denver has won four consecutive AFC West titles, and Del Rio was on Fox's staff for three of those. Before he was hired by Fox -- after a meeting at the Senior Bowl -- Del Rio had been the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach for nine years.

Del Rio has made no secret that he hoped for a second chance at being a head coach. He had a 68-71 regular-season record with the Jaguars and made the postseason in 2005 and 2007, winning one playoff game. He was fired 11 games into the 2011 season after the Jaguars started 3-8.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When it comes to cornerbacks, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said "things happen." Things like, you know, touchdowns.

And that, because of a pass-happy league awash in touchdowns at times, the defensive backs that vocationally survive to thrive "have to have a short memory."

But then there's Chris Harris Jr.

"I had things you move on from," Harris Jr. said. "Maybe an assignment mistake, a penalty, missed tackle, the things you want to always clean up and get better."

But the touchdowns? How about the touchdowns?

"I didn't have any of those," Harris Jr. said with a laugh. "I don't have to forget any of those this year."

No, he didn't. Harris Jr. played 967 snaps on defense in the regular season. He played on the outside on the left on a variety of snaps, he played in the slot on the right at times and in the slot on the left at others. He covered wide receivers, tight ends and on a smattering of plays a running back or two.

And Harris Jr. did not surrender a touchdown pass in coverage on any of those plays.

"There are special athletes that you are going up against," Del Rio said. "I tell our DBs I think they are the best athletes in the world. I think to look at what they are asked to do to go up against supremely talented wide receivers and not touch them beyond five yards and how you play down the field and all the way the rules are slanted to be able to flourish in an environment like that, there is a credit to the athleticism and the abilities in some of these guys."

Harris Jr. said the closest may have been an Andrew Luck to Coby Fleener attempt in the regular-season opener, "but I don't know if there were many that close."

And toss in the fact Harris Jr. had ACL surgery in February, just after the Broncos returned to Denver from the team's loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Harris Jr.'s season takes on a remember-when feel.

Harris Jr.'s teammates voted him the Broncos' Ed Block Courage Award winner this week for his determination in returning from his injury -- originally suffered in the Broncos' divisional round win against the San Diego Chargers last February. He made his first Pro Bowl, and while Harris Jr. expects the Patriots' Darrelle Revis and the Seahawks' Richard Sherman to secure the two first-team cornerback spots on the All-Pro team, Harris Jr.'s coaches and teammates believe he is worthy of that as well.

"He's been an All-Pro in my book. He's been very good. A little [Ed Block Courage Award] tribute video was shown [Wednesday] to the squad and to see what he had to go through, what he had to come back from, the way he went after it, the tenacity that he approached it with, and the performance he's had. He's had the best year of his career coming off a major injury so it's really a great story. It's been a special year for him in a lot of different ways," Del Rio said.

It's the Broncos' willingness to line up Harris Jr. all over the formation on a variety of receivers -- players with speed, size or both -- that puts Harris Jr. in a small group.

"He's played really not only left, right and in the slot as a nickel but he's also played some safety," Del Rio said. "He's done a little bit of everything. Guys that are tough and smart with the way he approaches and studies the game and the way he performs it just allows you a lot of flexibility. It is a great asset for our defense."

"But I just want to play in Super Bowls," Harris Jr. said. "I'll line up wherever they want me to, play wherever, I just want to help us get to big games, playoff games, Super Bowl. I had to stand and watch last year and I felt like I might have helped some. I want to help."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With visions of a 22-player injury report still dancing in their heads from the last week, the Denver Broncos tried to walk the line between rest and ready in recent days.

Having earned the hard-earned bye week, they wanted to get as many players as close to healthy as they could before they begin work Sunday.

Last year, when the Broncos had the playoff bye week they sandwiched practices around stretches of no more than two off days. This time, with the team’s massive injury report and the fact the team’s regular season bye was Week 4, Broncos coach John Fox elected to give the team three consecutive days off following Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices.

“Our players will relax,’’ Fox said after Wednesday’s practice. “They’ll escape it for a minute. At this stage of the year, they’re sick of us, we’re sick of them. That’s typically how it works. It’s a little break from the day-to-day monotony of what we do.’’

The team will reconvene Sunday for meetings and a workout with the strength and conditioning staff. And while three days off was welcome news, the goal was to “get healthy, take a little break and then come back Sunday ready to get to work again,’’ said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “You got this far to get in the playoffs, now you don’t want to just leave it at that.’’

The Broncos won their fourth consecutive AFC West title this season. The Broncos 38 victories in three seasons -- 12 wins in 2014, after winning 13 games in both the 2012 and 2013.

That is the second highest-total in franchise history behind the 39 wins from 1996-98. That run, however, included back-to-back Super Bowl wins to close out the 1997 and 1998 seasons, the last two years the team’s executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway played for the team.

And after a crushing double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens ended the 2012 season and a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII last February, the Broncos say they understand what awaits them when they return to work Sunday.

“Now the key is to make sure you take care of all the situational elements that come up in playoff football, be on top of your game, make sure you seize the moment, that you’re ready to take advantage of the opportunities there in front of us,’’ said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “You’ve got to treasure these times. We’ve been in this hype now -- the three years I’ve been here we have had some outstanding football, it’s a great organization, and here we are knocking on the door again. You understand these moments are precious and you want to take full advantage of them.’’

Quarterback Peyton Manning, who is in his 17th season and has been to the playoffs in 14 of them, said Wednesday he still makes it a point to appreciate a chance to chase a Super Bowl win.

“Yeah, absolutely,’’ Manning said. “This is the old cliché: This is why you worked hard all offseason, for this opportunity. Try to put to use all we’ve been through this season and learn from all the things that have happened and try to be as prepared as you possibly can. Knowing playoff football takes some different turns and twists and you play some really good football teams. But yeah, certainly we’re excited … hopefully we can have a good week of work next week and get ready.’’

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox, John Elway
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliJohn Fox and John Elway are eager to get the Broncos back to work in the playoffs.
For his part offensive coordinator Adam Gase spent five seasons as a scouting assistant and assistant coach with the Detroit Lions earlier in his career. The team didn’t make the postseason in any of those years. In his first two years in Denver, on Josh McDaniels’ staff, the Broncos finished 8-8 after a 6-0 start in 2009 to go with a 4-12 finish in 2010.

“I had a pretty good run of not winning that many games,’’ Gase said. “ … These last three years have been special. Just winning this many games and having an opportunity to actually make a run at a Super Bowl, getting there last year, falling short, and having another shot -- it’s just something you can’t take for granted. I know a lot of guys that leave and get stuck in some situations, they understand that.’’

The Broncos did a smattering of on-field work and in meetings this week on each of their possible three playoff opponents -- Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals or Indianapolis Colts.

They will practice Monday and will have a full week to prepare for their postseason opener on Sunday, Jan. 11.

“That means it’s time to get to work,’’ said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “We all know it, the bye is great, we earned it, but we have work to do and everybody understands that.’’

Raiders vs. Broncos preview

December, 26, 2014
When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS

As the regular season wraps up, the Oakland Raiders (3-12) are poised for another coaching search as they have missed the postseason for the 11th consecutive season -- they last made it in 2002, when they closed out that season with a loss in Super Bowl XXXVII.

The Denver Broncos are looking to regain some momentum after Monday night’s loss in Cincinnati and need a win to earn a much-needed bye for the first round of the playoffs.

ESPN NFL Nation Raiders reporter Bill Williamson and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold look at Sunday's matchup:

Legwold: The Raiders have shown a little grit under interim coach Tony Sparano. What is the latest on their coaching search and who do you think gets the job?

Williamson: All the speculation is on Jim Harbaugh at this point. There has been talk that it could come down to Michigan or the Raiders once Harbaugh leaves the San Francisco 49ers next week. Securing Harbaugh would be a huge shot in the arm for Oakland. If Oakland owner Mark Davis can’t land Harbaugh, top names on the list might include Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and Rex Ryan, if he is fired by the Jets as expected. Sparano could also be in the mix if some pursuits don’t develop.

Jeff, do you think Del Rio could be a fit for the Raiders?

Legwold: Del Rio certainly wants to be a head coach again. He’s in his third season with the Broncos since a nine-year run as Jacksonville Jaguars coach. In a league where the numbers on offense are climbing with each flip of a calendar page, it can be more difficult for coaches with defensive backgrounds to separate themselves from their peers to become the hot candidates. Del Rio has the head-coaching experience some owners want, but many defensive coaches around the league see a landscape where team owners are far more willing to take a chance on a coordinator with an offensive pedigree. A quality postseason run could push Del Rio more into the mix -- the Broncos are still No. 3 in total defense and No. 2 in run defense after their semi-meltdown in Cincinnati on Monday night -- but the unit needs a signature game, something like a postseason win against New England, to really push Del Rio to the forefront. He fared well as the Denver interim coach last season when John Fox missed four games after open heart surgery, and Del Rio has retained high-powered Bob LaMonte as his agent. In the end, like a lot of coaches searching for a second chance, Del Rio would have to be up front about what he would fix and how he would fix it from his last experience.

In terms of the future for the Raiders, quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack look to be the kind of building-block players a franchise needs for a rebound. How would you rate their progress, and what is Carr’s standing among his teammates?

Williamson: Mack has been simply outstanding. His statistics don’t jump out, but he’s a coach’s dream. He is always around the play, no matter the situation. I expect him to get more explosive as his career develops. Carr is revered by the entire franchise. He still has a ways to go in his development, but the game is not too big and he’s delivered in some pressure situations. If he continues to learn his progressions and improve against the blitz, he should be an above-average player.

Jeff, have any young players in Denver jumped out to you on the veteran-laden roster?

Legwold: Cornerback Bradley Roby was the Broncos’ first-round pick this past May, and when he arrived, Del Rio simply told him the Broncos had a lot of experienced cornerbacks so he shouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t play much. Instead of wilting at that assessment, Roby went about the business of earning his playing time. He plays in the nickel and dime packages -- he’s played in 75 percent of the defensive snaps this season -- and deserves a long look for the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Roby has been competitive in coverage and physical along the line of scrimmage. Though he has been picked on a little at times, most opposing quarterbacks have not found much success doing it. Also, second-year running back C.J. Anderson went from shaky status in minicamp last spring to the team’s leading rusher. And linebacker Brandon Marshall, who spent most of last season on the team’s practice squad, has played at a Pro Bowl level as an every-down linebacker and is the Broncos’ leading tackler with 110.

Looking at the Raiders' defense, including Mack, how do you think they will come after Peyton Manning this time around? Teams have made it more difficult for Manning to do what he likes to do in the passing game in recent weeks. Do you think the Raiders will use the same defensive game plan they used against Denver last month?

Williamson: Manning has absolutely shredded Oakland in his five games against them as a Bronco. So until proven otherwise, we have to assume that he will have success again Sunday. Denver had a tough time in pass protection at Cincinnati. I’m sure Oakland will try to start its attack by trying to get some pressure with Mack, Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith. Oakland, which has struggled rushing the passer most of this season, had a solid performance against Buffalo. So I’m sure it will try to make Manning as uncomfortable as possible.

I know there is some panic over Manning among the fan base in recent weeks. Are the Broncos concerned?

Legwold: Coach John Fox said this week that Manning is "fine" physically, and when Manning was asked after the loss in Cincinnati if he had any physical issues impacting his play, said he did not. On one hand there is plenty of hand-wringing about Manning with the Broncos’ faithful, about the team’s play in road games this season and in bad weather. He had his first four-interception game since 2010 this past Monday night, and has looked unsettled at times as defenses have tried to force him to throw the ball outside the numbers as much as possible. He had 11 interceptions in the Broncos’ road games this season, and his 15 interceptions overall are his most since he had 17 in 2010 (following 16 picks in 2009). The Broncos are concerned, but they know from a football perspective they have to find an answer for what defenses have done largely since the team’s loss in New England in early November. The teams with the personnel to do it have succeeded in limiting the crossing routes, the catch-and-run plays that are the foundation of the Broncos’ offense. The Broncos don’t see Manning much differently than last season, when he set a record with 55 touchdown passes. The Broncos are also fairly quick to point out that, despite all of the debate on Manning’s health and play, he still leads the league in touchdown passes with 39, and the Broncos are one win away from the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As DeMarcus Ware essentially dragged himself, willed himself really, through the 2013 season, his elbow hurt, his thigh hurt and sometimes his pride hurt.

"I just didn’t feel like myself," Ware said. "I tried to play, had some good moments, but the season didn’t go like I like seasons to go. I knew I had better in me."

So when the Dallas Cowboys released Ware last March, the profile was declining player coming off injury-filled season. But that is not what the Denver Broncos saw.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDenver has limited pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware's workload this year, and he has responded with one of the best seasons of his career.
The Broncos looked down the road, projected a healed, managed, Ware into their defense, where the quality of the snap count would trump quantity. As executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it; "We thought once he got healthy, and if we could put him in the situations where he could be his best, he had a lot of football left in him, a lot of football."

As the Broncos head down the stretch toward the postseason with Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the team has monitored how much football Ware plays and gotten his best because of it.

Fourteen games into the season, with what the Broncos hope are the biggest games still to be played, Ware has played 669 snaps on defense or 70.3 percent of the defensive plays. There are times on early downs, sometimes even on pass-rush downs, when Ware is on the sideline.

Quanterus Smith, who has played 279 snaps, or 29.3 percent of the defense’s plays thus far, is usually the one working in Ware’s defensive end spot as the Broncos pick their spots for their member of the 100-sack club.

The result has been that Ware, at 32 and in his 10th season, feels, and has played, as good as ever.

"I feel like this right here is probably at this time in my career the best I’ve ever felt," Ware said. "I don’t feel like there are any dings on my body where it’s prohibiting me from doing certain things. Every player gets out here and they’re sore or they’re tired -- that comes with football. But once you rehabilitate yourself and recoup during the week and feel 100 percent before each game, I’ve felt that way this year and it feels great."

The result has been 10 sacks to go with just the third interception of his career. The Broncos also hope it allows Ware to power his way down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Last season he had one sack over the Cowboys' last six games, and in 2012, when he finished with 11.5 sacks, he had 1.5 sacks over the last six games. Ware has one sack in the Broncos’ current four-game win streak -- it was against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"We use a lot of people," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "We want people to be in the best situations for us for what we need to get done ... We’re always going to have (Ware) in the best situations."

For Ware it’s all about playing in his first postseason game since the 2009 season, and all about trying to reach the title game for the first time in his career. Following the game in Cincinnati, the Broncos will close out the regular season in Denver against the Oakland Raiders, with Denver still clinging to a chance at home-field advantage in the AFC if the Broncos win both remaining regular-season games and the New England Patriots lose one of their last two games.

"Every game I feel like is a must-win game," Ware said. "You’ve got to think about it that way, because you want to go into the postseason on a high and motivated. You can look at a lot of teams around the league -- some of them are trying to get in, some of them are trying to get a berth or wild card or whatever it is. Every game you’ve got to play like it’s your last one."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – After watching linebacker Danny Trevathan practice over the past two weeks, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said it’s “great to have him back in the mix.’’

 Linebacker Brandon Marshall said Friday he was “very eager’’ to line up alongside Trevathan. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr said; “Danny coming back would just give us the defense at full strength, and we've been playing good defense so that only makes us go up another notch.’’

And unless something unexpected happens in the team’s walk-through practice on Saturday, the wait will be over. The Broncos are expected to formally move Trevathan from injured reserve/designated to return to the 53-man roster Saturday before the team leaves for San Diego.

Trevathan is also expected to be in the lineup, on defense, Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos will have make a roster move to make room for Trevathan and were considering their options on Friday for that move.

The third-year linebacker has practiced with the team since Nov. 26 and on Thursday, Del Rio said; “I think he’s looked pretty good getting back the last couple of weeks to practice. It’s good to have all the healthy bodies we can. Danny’s obviously a good player and it’s great to have him back in the mix.”

Trevathan, who was the team’s leading tackler in 2013, has been on injured reserve/designated to return since Oct. 14. Overall, he has played in just two games this season because of two separate fractures in his left leg, the first suffered in training camp, the second in the Oct. 12 game against the New York Jets.

“I’m real eager, we’re both playmakers, we both have great instincts we both make plays,’’ Marshall said about the prospects of lining up alongside Trevathan. “To have him back would be tremendous.’’

If the Broncos want to ease Trevathan back into things, they could have him participate initially in the specialty packages, in the nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs). If Trevathan was to return to his full duties immediately and line up at weak-side linebacker in the base defense, Marshall would then play at the middle linebacker spot.

Earlier in the week, Trevathan said he was “eager’’ to return and that “I’m always ready to go out there and put on the best performance possible, especially with this defense we’ve got right now.’’

On the prospects of lining up Marshall, who leads the Broncos in tackles this season, and Trevathan at the same time, Del Rio said; “They’re both similar in that they’re instinctive guys, they’ve got good speed, [and] they’re playmakers. So it’s really been a tremendous job by Brandon stepping in when Danny was out and the fact that he’s been able to hold up and help us play at a real high level in a big role. Obviously, getting Danny back, who had that role to begin with, should strengthen us down the stretch here.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said he remembers every part of the hit that resulted in his concussion in last Sunday’s Broncos win over the Miami Dolphins.

And that means everything, even the parts that cause him to smile now.

“I knew I was going to be OK after the game. I was able to drive," Marshall said after Friday’s practice “ … I didn’t have any headaches, everything was good. I just had to go through the protocol.’"

Marshall, who is the Broncos’ leading tackler, suffered a concussion on a fourth-quarter interception return by Denver safety T.J. Ward. After Ward grabbed the deflected pass, Marshall went to block Dolphins tight end Dion Sims, who is 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds.

“I tried to block No. 80; I hit him with the side of my helmet," Marshall said. “ … I remember everything, I was just dizzy. I couldn’t stand up, I tried to run and fell – twice. He’s like 270; I didn’t know he was that big. Damn, because it didn’t look like it fazed him at all. I tried to hit him and he just shrugged it off. I’m like, ‘Damn.’ I knew he was big, I didn’t know he was solid like that. It didn’t faze him, which was disappointing to me."

Marshall was cleared to begin light exercise before the team’s Thanksgiving practice and was then evaluated again following that workout by the independent physician – per the league’s concussion protocol – and cleared to return to full participation. As a result, Marshall took part fully in Friday’s workout and said following practice he expects to take his “normal" workload in Sunday night's game in Kansas City.

Marshall has played on 95.5 percent of the defense’s snaps this season since entering the lineup at weakside linebacker in training camp for the injured Danny Trevathan.

“We’ll take every healthy guy we can," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “Brandon has stepped in for Danny and done a nice job for us. We’re preparing the other guys in case we have another pop up right in the middle of the game. So you continue to work your backup guys, but him getting cleared is a good sign for us."

Trevathan, who has suffered two separate fractures in his lower left leg this season, has been on injured reserve-designated to return. Trevathan began to practice this week and will be eligible to be moved back on to the active roster before the Dec. 14 game against the San Diego Chargers.

“It’s going to be great when we get Danny back," Marshall said. “It’s going to open some things up for us. Almost our whole corps of linebackers will be back … somebody going to have to split time, me or somebody else. I’m just happy because we have one goal this year."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With a rather substantial list of defensive backs dotting the team’s injury report the Denver Broncos may have to adjust some things in Sunday night’s AFC West showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Following Friday's practice Broncos head coach John Fox said cornerback Kayvon Webster (right shoulder) is out for the game while cornerback Aqib Talib (left hamstring) and safety Quinton Carter (knee) are questionable. Webster did not take part in Friday’s practice while Talib and Carter were both limited in the workout.

Talib did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. If Talib and Carter are limited or don’t play, the Broncos will look to Omar Bolden, who has played both safety and cornerback, as well as cornerback Tony Carter.

The question on Talib will be whether or not the Broncos feel like he can make it through the game if they put him in uniform Sunday night. In the win against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, Talib left the game in the first quarter. He tried to return later in the first half, but didn’t play in the second half and the Broncos had made Carter a game-day inactive.

“We’ll decide how exactly it’s going to play out,’’ said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “We’ll just let it unfold. We prepare all our guys.’’

Also Friday, tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) took part on a limited basis for the second consecutive day. Fox said following the practice that Thomas looked “much better’’ Friday than he did last Friday.

Thomas did not play last week. The Broncos hope Thomas will improve before it leaves for Kansas City.

Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter of the Broncos’ win over the Dolphins last Sunday, was cleared by an independent physician as well as the Broncos’ medical staff to return to practice Friday.

Marshall, who plays in all of the team’s personnel groupings on defense, said he expects to play Sunday night in Arrowhead Stadium and take his “normal’’ number of snaps.

“Big game, everybody wants to win this game, this is the biggest game of our season so far,’’ Marshall said. “I’m just glad the concussion wasn’t too bad. I’ve been studying all week even thought I haven’t been practicing, but I’ve been paying attention. I’m just glad to be back out there.’’

As expected, Fox formally ruled out running backs Montee Ball (right groin) and Ronnie Hillman (left foot) for Sunday’s game.

Defensive end Quanterus Smith (ankle) participated fully in Friday’s practice and is expected to play.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Always be closing.

That’s what the Denver Broncos defense wants, from defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio all the way through the depth chart, the Broncos want to keep doing what they’ve been doing, but slam the door a little harder when they get the chance.

This past Sunday, the Broncos had held the Oakland Raiders to 125 total yards in 55 minutes, 30 seconds worth of football time. The Raiders had 11 three-and-outs and no Oakland possession had gone for more than 26 yards to that point as the Broncos were in the fast lane with a 41-10 lead.

[+] EnlargeChris Harris
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports"We want to always finish it out," Chris Harris, left, said. "We had a good day [against the Raiders], but we shouldn't allow somebody to go down the field like that."
And then the Raiders' rookie quarterback, Derek Carr, led an eight-play, 97-yard drive for a touchdown with 48 seconds left to play. In the big picture, the touchdown meant little beyond a first-year quarterback getting some game-speed snaps in an end-of-half situation. Carr was 7-of-7 passing on the drive for 89 of his 192 passing yards in the game.

The Broncos know a late-game score would sting plenty when the games get bigger and the Broncos' margin for error gets smaller.

“And that’s something we talk about a lot,’’ said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “We want to always finish it out. We had a good day, but we shouldn’t allow somebody to go down the field like that.’’

“I never want to get to the point as a coach where I don’t enjoy the good,’’ Del Rio said. “I think if I do that it would be time to retire. So you need to enjoy the success, enjoy the good, appreciate the effort that’s being put forth. I think the preparation, the way we go after each opponent has been very strong. Even in the ‘miserable performance’ a couple weeks ago (in a 43-21 loss to the New England Patriots), per play it was pretty good. We just didn’t do as well in some key moments. So there is always something to look at. There are usually positives if you look and there are negatives always that you want to correct, so I don’t feel any differently.’’

And while Del Rio did enjoy what went right on defense that is still No. 1 in the league against the run, the Raiders’ last possession was still an irritant.

“I just let them know that over the first 14 drives, they had (125) yards and then they got 95, or whatever it was, on the last one,’’ Del Rio said. “So if you don’t like that, do something about it. I don’t like it.’’

Several Broncos players cited the Broncos' 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers as another example of not quite closing the deal the way they had hoped. In that game the Chargers had just 121 yards worth of offense on their first seven possessions.

San Diego then put together back-to-back 75-yard scoring drives to first close out the third quarter and open the fourth quarter to close the gap. It took a Rahim Moore interception at the Broncos’ 4-yard line with just under five minutes to play to stop the rally.

“Look at those last drives … we’ve really talked about it, you don’t want teams, even if you’re beating them, it’s that moral sort of victory of saying no matter what the situation is, no matter how far we are ahead of a team, we always have to keep the pedal to the metal on defense and close games,’’ said Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware. “We did better (Sunday) than we did against San Diego, but there’s always room for improvement.’’

The Rams have had just one fourth-quarter comeback this season -- their 19-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 -- but they did score 10 points in fourth quarter of their 34-31 loss to the Dallas Cowboys and 14 points in the fourth quarter of their 34-28 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We always want to finish strong, we don’t want to be out there playing how we want to play for most of the game,’’ said Broncos linebacker Von Miller. “We want to play how we want to play for the whole game.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With two starting linebackers already missing games because of injuries, the Denver Broncos decided Thursday they couldn’t wait any longer on Nate Irving's recovery.

Irving, who was the Broncos’ starting middle linebacker, was moved to injured reserve Thursday because of a knee injury. The Broncos had also put in a waiver claim for linebacker Todd Davis, who had been released by the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday, and were awarded Davis on Thursday. Irving, who is to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, will miss the rest of the season.

The two moves speak to the severity of Irving’s injury as well as the Broncos' desire for some additional depth at the position. Davis, an undrafted rookie, who had been on the Saints’ practice squad for much of the season, had appeared in three games for New Orleans on special teams and had three tackles in those three games combined.

The Broncos could not use the "designated to return" option to wait for Irving to heal because they have already used it on Danny Trevathan.

Trevathan has played in just two games because of two separate fractures in his lower left leg, and the Broncos have already designated Trevathan for return from injured reserve. Trevathan, who missed the preseason and the first three games of the regular season with the first fracture before re-injuring the leg, in a different spot, in his second game back, is eligible to return to practice Nov. 26 and can be moved back to the active roster in the week leading up to the Broncos’ Dec. 14 game against the San Diego Chargers.

Teams can only designate one player in a season for return from injured reserve. So, when Irving suffered a severely sprained MCL in his right knee in the Broncos’ Nov. 2 loss to New England, it put the team in a bit of a bind. At minimum the Broncos were expecting Irving to miss several weeks -- he had not practiced since the injury and was not expected to in the coming weeks.

It is also a testament to the team’s confidence in Brandon Marshall, who is the Broncos’ leading tackler having started in Trevathan’s weakside linebacker spot. When Trevathan returns the Broncos are going to look for ways to keep Marshall on the field in the base formation, so playing Marshall at middle linebacker in the base defense is expected to be one of those ways.

Steven Johnson played at middle linebacker this past Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Johnson "did just fine, Stevie’s a dependable guy, tough guy, smart guy, and he understood his role and did a nice job with it." Johnson played 19 snaps on defense in Irving’s place.

Davis, who played at Sacramento State, was one of the players the Broncos had interest in as a possible rookie free agent. He was on the Broncos’ contact list, but Davis elected to sign with the Saints.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a time when the rulebook has been thrown open to favor offenses and when the league's defensive coaches believe the game is stacked against them, the Denver Broncos find themselves struggling on the few plays where the defense holds most of the cards.

While the Broncos have forced offenses into plenty of third-and-long situations, too often the Broncos have also let those offenses escape.

“Once it gets to third-and-long the defense has the advantage," Broncos nose tackle Terrance Knighton said. “The great quarterbacks do a great job of getting out of those situations, but as a defense when we get teams in those situations, you have to win, you have to win. If it’s third-and-10 and they convert, it’s obviously a big chunk right there, 10 to 15 yards, if not more ... It’s yardage and momentum."

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaTom Brady and opposing quarterbacks have had success converting third-and-long situations against the Broncos this season.
The Broncos have done well to force offense into plenty of third-and-6 or more situations, but those same opponents have wriggled off the hook 24 times, including four times by the New England Patriots this past Sunday.

The Broncos have also allowed one fourth-and-6 conversion -- by the Indianapolis Colts in the season opener. Twenty of the third-down-conversions have come by pass completions, with four coming as a result of Broncos penalties.

“It’s deflating," said Knighton, who comes out of the lineup when the Bronccos go to their specialty looks in those long-yardage situations. “Third-and-7 or more, or third-down period, if I’m out (of the game) I’m not thinking about going back on the field, period. Especially third-and-long. (But) it’s deflating, you’ve got the offense ready to go in and when the offense gets like a first down when they’re at a disadvantage, it sparks their drive ... If you look at successful teams, successful offenses, quarterbacks, in all NFL history they have high third-down completion percentages and they get themselves in manageable third downs."

The Kansas City Chiefs have been the most effective, having converted seven third-and-long plays, while the Patriots converted in four such situations on Sunday. The New York Jets, the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers each converted three third-down plays, while the Colts converted one long third-down situation to go with the fourth-down conversion.

It’s especially frustrating considering the Broncos have spent mightily to upgrade their defensive personnel and believe they have close-the-deal playmakers at the necessary positions.

Quarterbacks have spread out their targets on the successful third-down conversions. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hit five different receivers to convert long-yardage situations on second, third and fourth downs this past Sunday.

“Any time we get people in third and long we expect to win," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “We’ve got really good rush up front, really good coverage people in the back and we know we’re sound in what we’re doing. We just need to execute a little bit better ... Frustrating? It can be if you let it be, but you want to be purposeful, you want to make sure you’re executing, and frustration does not typically lead to execution. We’re most interested in being poised, being smart, being tough, playing good football and part of that is taking advantage of those situations and winning those situations."

“It’s just some things we need to clean up," cornerback Chris Harris Jr said. “Little communication things ... We have to have those plays, those are the situations you want as a defense we have to take advantage of them."